In some areas of Africa and the Middle East, girls and women are subjected to the horrors of female genital mutilation. The World Health Organization defines FGM as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” FGM is typically performed on young girls, from infancy to age 15, and provides no health benefit. Instead, it can result in a variety of complications, such as severe bleeding, cysts, infections and infertility. Later in life, it can lead to problems with childbirth and increased risk of infant mortality. The procedure is often performed by traditional “circumcisers” in the community, but even health care providers have carried out FGM.
FGM is recognized as a human rights violation against girls and women, yet it continues for a number of reasons. Community and religious leaders may uphold the practice due to “cultural tradition,” and families may have girls undergo the procedure because of social pressure to conform to these traditions. FGM is also used as a tool to discourage girls from having premarital sex because many believe it reduces their libido.
Approximately 125 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM. FGM is most widespread in Africa, where it is estimated that three million girls are at risk annually.
In Sierra Leone, about 90 percent of women have undergone FGM. Women in this country are often subject to a particularly crude operation with razor blades or broken glass, carried out by elderly women who have been specifically designated by community leaders as circumcisers. FGM is part of an initiation ceremony, intended to prepare girls for marriage and motherhood. It is has been exceptionally difficult to prove to the people of Sierra Leone that this strongly held tradition is harmful. Furthermore, the country is home to numerous women’s societies with strong political power that still support the practice. The outlook may seem bleak for the women of Sierra Leone, but the nation has recently taken an important step towards ending FGM.
In early July, Sierra Leone’s government ratified the Maputo Protocol, which is intended to protect women’s rights in Africa. It addresses a variety of areas, such as political participation, protection of women in armed conflicts, girl’s access to education, economic and social welfare rights, reproductive health rights, and land rights. But the main objective of the Maputo Protocol is eliminating FGM in Africa. Sierra Leone has not banned the practice, but the ratification is a crucial first step towards doing so, as it shows an official political commitment to gender equality for the country.
Other groups are working to change attitudes towards FGM in Sierra Leone. Amnesty International’s Africa Human Rights Education Program has successfully helped communities such as the Chiefdom of Masungdala to ban FGM. Those fighting FGM must work to reach everyone in society to effectively enforce a ban, and it will take time to completely eradicate the practice, but the future is looking more promising for the women of Sierra Leone.
– Jane Harkness